Refining ‘rat tickling’ techniques

‘Tickling’ is used to improve laboratory rat welfare.


Researchers have been awarded more than £275,000 to refine ‘tickling’ techniques developed to improve animal welfare in laboratory rats.

Rat tickling, where the human hand mimics the touch sensations rats give each other when playing, is thought to create a positive emotional response in the animals. 

These emotions are measured by high-pitch sounds – 50kHz ultrasonic vocalisations (USVs) – which rats produce in positive situations, including when being tickled.

However, there is growing evidence of considerable individual variation in these responses, indicating that not all rats like being tickled and some may even find it unpleasant.

The collaborative project, involving SRUC and the Universities of Edinburgh and Bristol, will compare standard tickling techniques with a ‘playful tickling’ protocol intended to mimic more closely the dynamic nature of rat play.

Funded by the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs), the project will also involve input from stakeholders in the UK and North America to disseminate understanding of the benefits of tickling; to encourage its wider uptake in practice; and to gather data on the wider use of tickling in research and as a form of enrichment.

Lead researcher Professor Alistair Lawrence, joint chair in Animal Behaviour and Welfare at SRUC and the University of Edinburgh, said: “Rat tickling is increasingly being recognised as an effective means to improve laboratory rat welfare as it mimics rat play and rats often produce ultrasonic vocalisations in response, indicative of a positive welfare state.

“There is however, still work to be done to ensure that where rat tickling is used, it provides the maximum benefits to the animals.

“We will investigate this and whether tickling also increases the reproducibility of research by reducing the variation of behavioural and physiological responses in the animals.”

Posted by SRUC on 04/10/2021

Tags: Funding and Grants
Categories: Animal Welfare